Shortly before sunrise, the veterans received their instructions and marched into the darkness. Each man had a job. Some wore headlamps as they planted hundreds of decoys at precise intervals across the wet, patchy field near Easton, Md. Others hauled brush through the cold air to camouflage their post. Then they sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a long plank, loaded their guns, and waited in silence for the snow geese to appear.
Though seven men sat in the blind on that February morning, the hunting trip was really for just three of them: combat-wounded veterans invited by Freedom Hunters, one of dozens of non-profit groups across the U.S. who believe that hunting can be therapeutic for returning troops. Organizations like Wounded Warrior Outdoors in Florida and Hunters Helping Heroes in New Jersey organize donations of equipment and guides, trumpeting the benefits of getting veterans outdoors for distracting adventures. Some outfits say outright that their work will aid in “physical and emotional healing.”
Psychiatric experts agree that there are benefits—with a big caveat. Hunting can provide opportunities for teamwork and goal-seeking that are often absent from civilian life, but any activity involving guns poses dangers too, especially for individuals with mental health issues that are common among U.S. veterans. In Maryland, the three veterans emphasized that common does not mean universal. They said they’re tired of the stereotype that returning troops are loose cannons who can’t be trusted around guns, a stereotype they feel organized hunting trips can combat.
Andy Corbett, a brawny 30-year-old studying to become a social psychologist, joined the Army National Guard with five fraternity brothers after 9/11. On his third deployment, working as a combat engineer in Iraq, he was on a night patrol through Baghdad with Specialist Jon Holt. Holt, 27, has two kids, a rustic twang and a leg mangled by an IED that tore into their truck on that patrol. Holt and Corbett were in the front seats. Two men in back were killed.
Holt and Corbett met Ryan Lamke on the hunt. Lamke, 28, dropped out of college and joined the Marines when he was 19. He was in Iraq about six months later. For a while, he kept a traumatic brain injury under wraps so he could continue combat, but after he collapsed on a training mission, he was found unfit for duty. Lamke is open about his TBI and about having post-traumatic stress disorder. “I am not afraid of the stigma,” he says of PTSD. “It’s a common reaction to an uncommon circumstance.”
The three men say that hunting reminds them of the camaraderie and ritual that defined their time in the service. On the ground in Maryland, they became a makeshift platoon. “You’re replicating the training, the kind of thing that you love to do,” Corbett says, “almost like that guard duty that every sailor and soldier and Marine goes through.” Lamke calls the long stretches of quiet in the goose blind “shared solitude” because he knows he’s with other veterans who feel like they’re at a listening post again. “Even if we never say a word to each other,” Lamke says, “we’re always looking out for each other.”
Veterans who have seen action “come back here, and it’s kind of flat,” says former Army psychiatrist Elspeth Ritchie. By stalking prey in the forest or field, she says, “you’re using your combat skills, you’re focused, your adrenaline is up. You’re alive again.” There’s an affirming sense of solidarity and mission, what former Navy psychiatrist William Nash calls “lost parts of the military identity.” Veterans might use the trip to “undo” traumatic events, Nash says. A soldier could, for instance, use a day afield to reenact a moment when he lost a friend or didn’t get the enemy in time.
Sometimes a hunting trip simply gives a recovering double-amputee a day to anticipate and a chance to connect, says Freedom Hunters organizer Bud DePlatchett. He feels hunting offers a kind of intimacy that veterans wouldn’t get from a white-water rafting trip or weekly therapy session. DePlatchett recalls veterans who had been laconic and distant finally opening up about their problems after half a day sitting silent in a blind. “It really does, very quietly, do some pretty miraculous things,” DePlatchett says. Former National Rifle Association President David Keene agrees: “It’s great therapy,” he says.
Hunting might also evoke the adrenaline veterans felt when their lives were on the line or when they killed another human being. “Aggressive, dominating behavior can become an addiction,” says Nash, a PTSD specialist. Chasing legal game may serve as “a sort of methadone,” he says, invoking the legal drug that some addicts use to wean themselves off heroin. None of the veterans on the trip said they liked hunting because they missed shooting at people. But Lamke does yearn for the simplicity and stimulation of warfare. “You only have to worry about life and death,” he says. “You’re not worried about paying your bills on time. Little things like that matter when you’re in this world. And I miss that. I miss that lifestyle.”
More than 10 million Americans spend more than $30 billion on hunting expeditions every year. That doesn’t mean everyone likes it, of course. Critics, such as animal-rights activists, believe taking life for sport is immoral. Some people have spoken out specifically against groups who take veterans afield. “[H]aven’t our soldiers already endured enough suffering, cruelty and killing?” wrote a former Maryland natural resources official in an op-ed last year for the Baltimore Sun.
Like hunting or not, it’s a pastime that often requires guns, and guns are dangerous. That lesson was underscored by the death of Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle, which took place a few days before the Maryland trip. Renowned as one of the military’s deadliest sharpshooters, Kyle also worked with troubled veterans. In February, Kyle invited an ex-Marine to spend some time with him on a gun range near his home in Texas. In a tragic twist, the Marine, who had displayed signs of PTSD and depression, shot and killed Kyle and a fellow veteran. That incident reignited national conversations about the potential dangers of mixing firearms and PTSD—and breathed new life in the stereotype that many returning combat vets will eventually go berserk.
Two of the veterans on the trip said they have some level of PTSD. (Ritchie believes all veterans who have seen combat do.) Holt says he hasn’t “had the twig snap,” and was especially frustrated by the buzz surrounding Kyle’s death. “We do a lot to try to improve our country,” he said over dinner the night before the hunt. “We can’t sit there and go, ‘You know, all of them are unstable, and they all have PTSD. And they’re all gonna go around and do this horrible stuff.’”
The stereotype may be unfair, but as with many stereotypes, it’s also based on truths: veterans’ historical problems readjusting after war; links between PTSD and increased aggression; the grisly, nearly one-a-day suicide rate among troops. Military psychiatric experts say that mental health issues make hunting a dangerous hobby for some veterans. “Watching [an animal] die may trigger a lot of intense emotions and impulses,” says Nash. “And having a loaded gun in your hand when you’re feeling intense emotions is probably not a good thing.” Ritchie warns that the smell of gunpowder or ring of shots might trigger flashbacks and that veterans who have had suicidal or homicidal thoughts shouldn’t be going afield. Freedom Hunters tries to screen for potential problems by asking veterans basic questions about hunting experience and combat injuries. But they do not outright ask if a potential hunter has suicidal tendencies or known flashback triggers.
On the outing in Maryland, the veterans proved adept with their guns. Snow geese are elusive birds, renowned in sportsmen’s circles as the most frustrating and rewarding waterfowl to hunt. Only three geese came into shooting range during the long, cold day. But none left alive. The veterans felt it was a great success. “A program like this tells us, ‘You’re not incompetent. You’re not untrustworthy with a firearm,’” Lamke says. “’You’re not incapable of going out in a field and getting dirty again.’ It gives us that outlet.”